BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Staged 49 years ago, from Aug. 15 to 18, 1969, the Woodstock music festival was a turning point for former Glen Ridge resident Dick Gersh.
Already a well-regarded publicist with clients such as Jackie Gleason and Tony Bennett, Gersh said in a recent interview at Fitzgerald’s over brunch, that Woodstock helped define his business, Dick Gersh and Associates, as the top publicity office in America.
Originally from Michigan, Gersh grew up in Maplewood and graduated from Columbia High School in 1945. He attended Syracuse University on the G.I. Bill and majored in English literature. At the time of his graduation in 1950, he was working part-time for Cash Box, a jukebox trade paper.
“Originally, Cash Box was just for the jukebox industry,” Gersh said. “But the music became just as important. When it was at its height, jukeboxes were the biggest buyers of records.”
Gersh never made it to his college graduation.
“Right before the ceremony, someone quit at Cash Box,” he said. “I went into New York City for the job” as a reporter for the magazine.
“What I decided to do was, if I went to everything, did everything, someone would recognize me and I would have a better chance of getting into show business. I would go to a refrigerator opening.”
During this time, the early ‘50s, Gersh said New York City was loaded with nightclubs.
“I thought someone would see me and say to themselves, ‘What a hard working guy’ and then hire me. It’s what I just figured and, sure enough, that’s what happened. I was hired by Buddy Basch. He had a public relations company and hired me.”
One of his assignments was covering the popular “Arthur Godfrey Show.” One of the acts on the television show was a singing group called The Mariners, who told Gersh they would like him to represent them, if he had his own company.
“I didn’t have my own office, but I knew a young singer named Tony Bennett,” Gersh said. “His manager was Ray Muscarella. He had a big suite of offices and Tony asked me to come in and I’d have my own office. So, Tony Bennett was my landlord.”
Then something shocking happened on the “Arthur Godfrey Show.” Godfrey fired his popular singer, Julius La Rosa, on air.
“Godfrey had a terrible temper,” Gersh said. “You were always nervous around him. Julie sang his song and Godfrey goes over to him and says, ‘That’s your swan song.’”
The entertainment industry and the public were in shock while La Rosa did not know what hit him, but Gersh had his first client.
“It was hard at the beginning,” he said. “You don’t have a reputation and your clients aren’t making that much money either. But I was lucky. My wife, Arlene, and I were just dating then. She helped out as a secretary.”
It was not until Bennett became a client that Gersh felt his company had any presence in the industry. Then came Woodstock.
“Woodstock did a lot to help me, being one of the six people to produce that,” he said.
But at first, Gersh thought Woodstock was a crazy idea.
“It sounded nutty to me, an entire weekend in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “But a lawyer, Paul Marshall, talked me into doing the publicity. It turned out to be the iconic cultural event of the 20th century. Even today, you say ‘Woodstock’ and the kids know about it.”
He said the highways in upstate New York came to a standstill with the traffic of people going to the event.
“There was no way to get up there,” he said. “I was called and asked what were we going to do.”
Then Gersh remembered Huey Army helicopters from his military experience and told his accountant to get a Huey, regardless of the cost.
“That’s how we got the acts up there and back,” he said.
Then he got a call from Michael Lang, one of the six producers.
Lang had more bad news: A fence had been knocked down and people were getting in for free, adding to the cost woes.
But in preparing for Woodstock, Gersh had contacted Ahmet Ertegun, president of Atlanta Records.
“The greatest record man I had ever met,” Gersh said of Ertegun. “He was my mentor. I went to him and we made a deal to release a recording of the music. He asked if we were going to make a documentary. I hadn’t thought of it. He said he would connect with Warner Brothers.”
Gersh said Ertegun knew three NYU film students who would shoot the documentary and a movie deal was made. One of those students was Martin Scorsese.
“After Woodstock, we knew early on we were going to be in debt,” Gersh said. “We were down $3 million. An impossible amount of money. But if we could get enough publicity, we could recoup the money.”
Gersh figured celebrities would give Woodstock the publicity he needed. Newspaper from all over the world were calling his office to find out more about the show.
“It was incredible,” he said.
To help publicize the event, Janis Joplin was flown back to New York City after her performance and brought to Gersh.
“She was in the office and a call came in from a newspaper in New Zealand,” he recalled. “I told her that they wanted to speak to her. She said, ‘Me?’ I said, ‘You’re huge in New Zealand.’ She said, ‘Really?’ I told her, ‘Would I lie?’
“Let me tell you, you put someone like Janis Joplin on the phone and you’re going to get a lot more publicity than just speaking to me. We not only made back the $3 million, but a hell of a lot more. The two fellows who put up the money made an enormous amount back. They were John Roberts and Joel Rosenman.’
Included in the original six men who produced Woodstock, Gersh said, were Paul Marshall and Art Kornfeld.
“Woodstock really made me the No. 1 office in music publicity and marketing,” Gersh said. “It did a lot of good for my office. The prestige was huge.”